Each of Us is a Letter

Three years ago, when my son was diagnosed with autism, I knew very little about disabilities and disability inclusion. I certainly valued the idea that the doors of our synagogues be wide enough for all to enter, but didn’t realize that unless the bathrooms were accessible, the print in our prayer books large enough or the hallway width 48 inches, none of our welcoming words would matter.

Very quickly, my family started our journey not only to support our child, but to educate ourselves about the practical realities of inclusion within the Jewish community. We met amazing individuals along the way – members of our synagogues, our professionals and lay leaders deeply enmeshed in this work and with immeasurable knowledge to share.

However, at the same time (let’s be honest!) the practical, everyday reality of building welcoming, inclusive community is hugely challenging. What can we do when our bema is not accessible and it is not practical or affordable to change our prayer space? Our synagogue community, Temple Shalom of Newton is able staff our education program with an inclusion coordinator and other special education professionals. What happens to children in communities unable to locate or hire this type of staff? And these are only two small examples.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, “[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters.” This month, we celebrate Shavuot and during these days, we stand at Sinai, each of us adding a letter to the story of the Jewish people. This true moment of power – when our identity as a people is established is also a moment of perfect inclusion. We all stood at Sinai, distinct and separate but joined one to the other, holding an individual letter adding up to a whole. Clearly at Sinai, the hallways were wide enough, the print just the right size and the bathrooms easy to access.

When we do not explore the difficult questions, when we do not challenge ourselves to expand our reach, our staffing, our spaces and ultimately our vision for sacred, inclusive community we lose people who hold letters, words and sentences vital to the integrity of our Sefer Torah. We lose people who stood with us at Sinai.HeadshotwZach

How can we practically begin this work in even the smallest of communities? Meet with members of your organization who experience disability in their life. Have coffee with disability professionals, the parents, caregivers and partners who have abundant knowledge and can help brainstorm, educate and dream. Listen to their stories – no matter how difficult they are to hear. Share your challenges with Jewish communal partners, create strategic plans (I will happily share ours!), think outside the box, share a SPED professional with another synagogue, ask a member of your community with professional experience to consult, start small and set goals you can attain. Achieving one small goal opens the door and hallway just a little wider than before.

Three years after my son’s autism diagnosis, I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn. I take incredible pride in each of his accomplishments, struggle to discern when to advocate and when to step back, and remind myself to cherish each infinitely beautiful and messy moment. Inspired by those already engaged in this sacred work of inclusion, I am grateful I am not alone on this journey.

May our celebration of Shavuot be a reminder that each of us is a letter in the scroll of the Jewish People. As Jewish professionals, we have the power to add letters to that scroll by striving to create that moment of perfect inclusion embodied at Sinai. It is not too late to begin the work. The story is not yet finished.

Rabbi Allison Berry serves Temple Shalom in West Newton, MA 

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “The Rabbi of Roundball”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

In retrospect, my life 50 years since HUC-JIR ordination can be characterized as expressing the adage, “you can take the boy out of Brooklyn not Brooklyn out of the boy.” Wherever I have served, in the U.S. military as Senior Staff Chaplain at the NIH, in the Israeli Army reserves, as rabbi of congregations for 50+ years and in seven decades, the street smarts and my Yeshiva education and Brooklyn, New York upbringing have formed and informed my professional work, personal development and way of life. Never have I forsaken my earliest religious indoctrination known as competitive basketball.

I was raised with an older sister, now deceased, and a younger sister. I am the father of three daughters raised through the Israeli school system and the Israeli Army. They are bi-cultural, bilingual, advanced degreed – law, PhD in the states – and they are raising their own Israeli children, my eight grandchildren, in a similar manner – speaking Hebrew and English at home in Israel. Some colleagues know Noga Brenner Samia who lectures at Bina and is HUC-JIR Jerusalem educated. I’m in love with my kids and theirs.

My grandfather snatched my young cousins from the furnaces of the Holocaust and brought them to America. They played a significant part of my childhood shaping later sensibilities. I can truthfully say that WWII and the Holocaust have impacted profoundly on my own life. My “American Jewry & the Rise of Nazism” [YIVO Prize] and my book The Faith & Doubt of Holocaust Survivors [NJB Award Finalist], reflect that reality. I have written and lectured extensively on catastrophe survivors and abductees. To alleviate the heaviness of these subjects, I published humor, including a book called “The Jewish Riddle Collection,” which is now being enlarged and republished. Humor has been an important part of my ministry, whether in the NIH Clinical Center among patients or in congregational life. My children’s book, Escape in Eight Days, scores as an adventure story at the time of the Shoah.

My father was a pious orthodox Jewish man; my mother was a typical Jewish mother, proud, loud and aggressive. My name, Reeve, means contentious, argumentative, contrarian accounting for and justifying the adage teaching k’shem hu. Likely, that is why I and no one else of my Yeshiva crowd departed orthodoxy for Reform. I was Yeshiva raised, traversed non-orthodox religious denominations, and found my spiritual home as a Reform klal yisrael rabbi. For all its deficiencies, I love and am grateful for the Reform religious home – without which – who knows?

I have written extensively: poetry, articles in our CCAR Journal, books and essays on the sociology of religion and the sociology of recreation, as well as research essays on the works of the “discredited” Immanuel Velikovsky, now published in my newest book on the natural catastrophes in the ancient world. I think the poetry I have written about my family discloses the me-est me. I am editor of Jerusalem Poetry of the 20th Century. My most recent book, While the Skies were Falling: The Exodus and the Cosmos, addresses the global reach of the biblical catastrophes and brings forth scientific and forensic technical evidence for their reality.

In my early years of rabbinical seminary, with several classmates, (Sandy Lowe among them whom I cared for deeply) I began a serious course of psychotherapy. I’d recommend it for our Jewish professionals. My hobbies from childhood on include raising turtles of threatened species and releasing them in the wild in their geographical region. Why would a turtle become my totem? Because a turtle makes progress only when it sticks its neck out. I’m also proud of having been credited in the zoological literature for providing the name for the third biblical vulture, “The Israel Desert Condor.”

Over the years I invented a number of inclusionary and wheelchair accessible, non-aggressive ball-playing sports. For example, Bankshot Basketball, is now being played in 300+ cities in the USA and around the world, in hospitals, camps, schools, parks. Ber Sheva, Hod Hasharon and Herzlia feature the sport. In an article about Bankshot, Sports Illustrated, bestowed upon me the title, “The Rabbi of Roundball”, about which I continue to be playfully reminded. That distinction such as it is, like my movie role in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, provoke kibitzing by family in every Seder or simcha gathering.

The sport Bankshot has been introduced and now is played in Kuwait. I often wonder what the good folks in Kuwait playing the sport might be thinking when they go to the internet and learn that Bankshot was created by a rabbi. The website,, displays many courts as well as photographs of my Bankboard pieces called SportStructures hanging in the Boston Children’s Museum, MOMA, and other museums exhibiting the pieces as interactive participatory sculpture. The Spirit of the ADA Award is one among a number of such recognitions with which I have been honored for Inclusion of people with disabilities. I’m proud of my work with and for disabled people.

In 1966, I became the first rabbi to teach at St. Vincent College and Seminary in Latrobe, PA offering courses in Introductory Judaism and Jewish Religious Thought. Moving my family to Israel, I lived there for some 12 years. I presently serve as rabbi for Bet Chesed Congregation in Bethesda MD. My article, an alternative methodology to CPE, entitled: “Nons, Nunyas, Appreciative Inquiry and the Aged,” – based essentially on AI theory – in The Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging came about as an outgrowth of my NIH hospital chaplain experiences and responsibilities. My book, Jewish, Christian, Chewish or Eschewish: Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium, is an outgrowth of my work with interfaith couples and families. It has meant a great deal to a goodly number of readers in the greater Washington area and elsewhere. The book is offered without cost at and is intended to be read before an intro to Judaism.

Rutgers University Transaction Press is scheduled to re-publish The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, previously published by Macmillan Free Press and Aronson, with a new introduction I wrote presenting Holocaust survivors’ considered views of the philosophy of our post-Holocaust philosophers, essentially their “repudiation” of the theology of mainstream Jewish thinkers concerning the Holocaust.

In sum, I think of myself as a project-oriented kind of funny guy and rabbi and find myself energized by self-imposed projects as challenges to take on and to enjoy the process.